Anyone who owns a parrot knows that they are extremely social animals who are capable of showing affection and love to receive attention. They also tend to be chatterboxes who frequently pick up new words and enjoy talking, singing, and whistling. Occasionally, you may find yourself with a parrot who is quieter, doesn’t display affection, and engages in repetitive behaviors. In a situation like this you may find yourself wondering, can parrots be autistic?
It is possible for a parrot to have behaviors that are similar to a human with autism. These behaviors are usually developed over time, and tend to be related to stressors in their environment. Without more in-depth information it’s hard to determine if parrots can have autism in the same way autism is found in human beings.
In this article we’ll take a look at autistic behavior in humans and compare it to similar behaviors often seen in parrots, the possible causes for these behaviors in parrots, and things you can do as a bird owner to help alleviate those symptoms. We’ll discuss whether there are any research studies that have been done related to parrots and autism.
Let’s get started!
What is autism?
Before we begin, we should talk about what autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is. ASD is a disorder that impairs a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. This disorder is lifelong and incurable. ASD is usually diagnosed based on symptoms alone and there aren’t any tests that are typically run to find out if a person has it.
Researchers haven’t been able to figure out what the exact cause of ASD is, but it is believed to involve abnormalities in the brain structure and function. Brain scans of children who have ASD have been shown to have differences in the areas of the brain that control sound processing and speech as well as the areas that control more complex social and cognitive functions.
ASD is a spectrum disorder, meaning that the symptoms can range from barely noticeable to a person who is unable to interact with others or do the things other humans do. People who have ASD often have difficulty with communication and social interaction, and some of them don’t talk at all. Another common symptom is the use of repetitive actions to calm themselves. People who have ASD can also have sensory issues, like feeling overwhelmed in a noisy room, and can become obsessed with certain topics or objects.
What are some behaviors that are commonly seen in autistic humans and are also found in parrots?
Parrot owners who are familiar with the symptoms of ASD in humans may notice similarities in their bird’s behavior to that of a person who has ASD. Some of these behaviors are seen as abnormal in a human but are normal reactions for a bird to have when they’re under stress, bored, or have a less sociable personality. These behaviors can often be corrected with some assistance from the parrot’s owner.
Difficulty with communication and affection
One of the most common symptoms of ASD in humans is difficulty with communication. This includes both communicating with others and also understanding what others are saying to them. It can be hard for someone with ASD to learn language skills, and some never speak at all. This can also extend to non-verbal social behaviors like showing affection.
Parrots tend to be highly social animals who can be very affectionate with people they’ve bonded with. When a parrot likes someone it is not uncommon for them to fly to them, rub their heads on their hands, climb up on their shoulders, or bob their heads up and down when they see them.
Most parrots have the ability to talk and there are quite a few species who are very intelligent with large vocabularies and the ability to perform simple tasks when asked. It can be concerning for a parrot owner if their bird doesn’t show these common traits.
Parrots who have been neglected or mistreated may not be as sociable as those that have been well taken care of. Having a well socialized parrot is a commitment and it takes time to bond with them. Parrots who have not been socialized can be standoffish, or even aggressive.
It can also take time and effort to expand a parrot’s vocabulary. Parrots learn how to speak through repetition so if their owner has not taken the time to teach them how to speak they may not pick up many, if any, words.
So, if you’ve recently brought a parrot into your home that is not affectionate and doesn’t chatter away as much as other parrots you’ve been around, you may just need to spend some time socializing with them and see if they open up.
Be patient and give them time to adjust. Often when parrots are brought into new environments it takes them a while to feel secure. Once they’ve gotten used to you and your home they may begin to relax and start to bond with you.
It is also important to remember that, like humans, parrots have their own personalities. If a parrot is quieter and less affectionate than it’s peers it could just be a part of their normal personality.
When a person with ASD is in a stressful situation, or is feeling anxious or fearful, they may participate in repetitive behaviors, often referred to as stimming, as a means to self-soothe.
There are many different forms of stimming often seen in people with ASD but some common ones are hand-flapping, pacing, rocking back and forth, or banging their head against something.
While some people think that stimming can be harmful, people with ASD find this behavior to be helpful and often use it to calm themselves when they are in an overwhelming or stressful situation.
Repetitive behaviors in captive animals is referred to as stereotypy. You may notice your parrot rocking back and forth, pacing, feather-picking, or biting the bars of their cage. Sometimes stereotypy is caused by stressors in the parrot’s environment but usually it means that they need more mental stimulation.
These behaviors are usually reversible. Providing your parrot with toys to engage them and keep them entertained will help with stereotypy. You may notice the behavior continues to occur from time to time as a way to self-soothe or occupy themselves if they are stressed or bored.
Are there studies involving the possibility of parrots having autism?
Scientists have begun to study the possibility of autism in animals to see if it can help them determine the cause of autism in humans. However, since it is often difficult to diagnose autism in humans it is even harder to determine if it occurs in animals because their behavior is so different from ours. Because the main reason for most of these studies is to compare behavior found in animals to that of humans they usually involve primates. There are some that include dogs and mice, but few involving birds.
It does appear that it would be very unlikely for an animal in the wild to develop autism, but it also can’t be definitively ruled out without more extensive study directly aimed at figuring out if animals can have autism.
Most of the studies done with animals in relation to autism involve trying to determine which genes and proteins are involved with the development of autistic traits. While the brains of birds are built to operate differently than a human brain there are still certain shared links in their genetic and chemical makeup. FOXP1 is a common gene that researchers think may have a hand in the development of language issues and autism.
Researchers found that when the expression of the protein created by FOXP1 was inhibited in zebra finches it limited their ability to learn songs from other finches. They were still able to learn to sing, but the songs they sung were simpler than the songs of other finches with normally functioning FOXP1 genes.
Of course, finches aren’t parrots, but based on the findings it isn’t far fetched to think that if the FOXP1 gene in a parrot was unable to function properly that it might cause the parrot to have the same kinds of issues with language as the finches had with learning songs and that humans with ASD have with learning to communicate. The genes in the study were altered by the researchers though so it doesn’t show whether or not a parrot could naturally have issues with their FOXP1 gene, or if it would only happen with human intervention.
So, can parrots be autistic?
Since there is no test currently available to find out if a human or animal has ASD it would be hard to say.
Currently, doctors diagnose ASD in a person by tracking the symptoms the person has.
Even though parrots can sometimes act in a similar way to a person who has ASD there’s no surefire way to tell if that parrot has ASD or if it’s just acting how a parrot might act in that situation.
The genes in the studies that have been done were altered by researchers, not found to be altered so even though the results caused similar issues in the finches that are found in humans there’s no clear proof that the same gene could be effected the same way in a parrot naturally. Without further in-depth study there is no way to know for sure if a parrot can develop autism.